Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich by Volker Ullrich, translated by Jefferson Chase

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin and the war in Europe didn’t end. The Nazi regime and the German armed forces — unsurrendered — held on to an hourglass of territory, pinched at the waist where the Allies had met up on the Elbe. Norway, Denmark and the area north of Hamburg were at one end, then the Czech lands and Austria, widening out into northern Italy, were at the other.

Over the first eight days of May on soil held by the Germans or that had been German, people continued to fight, to die, to drive out their oppressors, to escape justice, to set out for home, to polish their excuses for what had been done.

There is an Internet meme called “how it started, how it’s going”. Usually it involves two pictures, one of smug optimism and a second of humiliating failure. Students of the Second World War could create their own more sophisticated version by first reading John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940, where they would see Britain on the edge of defeat and the Nazis triumphant. And then turn to this excellent and admirably succinct book from Volker Ullrich dealing with events happening five years later.

A commendation too for the translator, Jefferson Chase, who also translated Ullrich’s recent two-part biography of Hitler. He really understands his author, from Ullrich’s use of irony to his occasionally more polemical moments. It still must be hard for a German scholar to be entirely dispassionate about what was done in (still, just) living memory.

Failing Heirs

One element to the book is the developing story of Hitler’s would-be heirs — the group of bigwigs, commanders, war criminals and bureaucrats gathered around the Führer’s designated successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, in the town of Flensburg near the Danish border. Over the week the group debates, considers, argues, sends out emissaries to the Western Allies (it is the British who are drawing ever closer to them) and squabbles.

Heinrich Himmler attempts to find a role and on failing makes his escape. Albert Speer, endlessly, relentlessly self-serving, hovers. The members of the Dönitz group attempt to avoid an unconditional surrender and are rebuffed. Then they try to buy time to allow as many German soldiers as possible to surrender to Western forces rather than the Russians, and there they are surprisingly successful. Finally they enter a brief state of meaninglessness, terminated when the British take pity on them and have them arrested.

Captured Nazis including Hermann Göring, Karl Dönitz, Julius Streicher, and Hans Frank, 1945.

Meanwhile, in Demmin in Pomerania, the citizens are killing themselves. With the Russians entering the town, up to 900 people pre-empt the anticipated savagery of the conquerors. Or, in the case of children, have that savagery pre-empted for them. At the same time in Berlin there is indeed what seems like a campaign of punitive rape permitted by the Red Army to its vengeful soldiery for several weeks.

But what about inside the hourglass? In that week in May the citizens of Prague rose in a manner reminiscent of the Warsaw Uprising nine months earlier. They were premature — the Americans were further away than they thought and the Germans fought back. What prevented a total disaster was the intervention of the Russian Liberation Army, which had been recruited by the Germans from among Soviet PoWs, who switched their support to the Czechs. I had never heard of this event before.

In that week in May the citizens of Prague rose in a manner reminiscent of the Warsaw Uprising nine months earlier.

This is mostly a book about people, and all over Germany they were mostly repairing or moving. The worst of the movers were the top war criminals, usually making for the Bavarian Alps, where the worst that could happen was capture by the Americans and the best was an eventual passage to Brazil or Argentina.

Many didn’t manage it, ending up dead like Martin Bormann or in captivity like Himmler. But quite a few — the Eichmanns or the Mengeles, famous in a thousand potboilers — got away. What happened to the next rung down of mass murderers depended very much on timing. They could wind up on a Polish gallows or, if they survived a year or two, running a business in Hanover or Stuttgart.

Yet the biggest group of people on the move was that largely overlooked but massive army of slave laborers, conscripted to the Reich to replace the men at the front. By September 1944, writes Ullrich, there were 7.6 million foreign slave laborers in Germany, 2 million of whom were prisoners of war.

Often starved, mistreated, subject to summary punishment for minor misdemeanors, one quarter of the German workforce was foreign. Every German city and large town had satellite camps or barracks for these workers. It is inconceivable that any sentient adult German wouldn’t have known about them.

After Hitler’s death these were now DPs — displaced people, looking to return home to countries despoiled by their hosts. Not a few formed into gangs, roaming the countryside, sometimes stealing what they needed from outraged Germans. However, in acts of organization that shame our present efforts to help refugees, between May and September 1945 an average of 33,000 DPs a day were returned to their home countries.

The Nazi Hunter of Vienna

Some people hadn’t been able to begin their journey home. On May 5 American troops reached a place in the Austrian Alps where there was a concentration camp. One survivor there was Simon Wiesenthal, who had been on what Ullrich calls “an odyssey of suffering”, shuffled from camp to camp, ending up nearly dead in the hospital at Mauthausen. Wiesenthal became the Nazi-hunter of Vienna.

He and his fellow Jews were a big problem. Not because there were so very many of them. There weren’t — 50,000-70,000 Jews from western Europe had survived the camps. Those who were still alive were traumatized but initially found themselves in DP facilities alongside some deeply anti-Semitic people. And where were the Jews to go? The British authorities forbade migration to Palestine, the main Jewish choice.

The nature of their trauma was given horrible emphasis on May 6, when US forces in southern Bohemia came across the 118 living but skeletal remnants of a party of 621 Jewish women. Starting out from a camp near the Bavarian town of Hof, they had been forced marched by their SS guards for three weeks. Stragglers had been shot on the spot, others had died of starvation or illness.

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal holds a photo of former Gestapo chief Walter Rauff, who escaped to Santiago, Chile, after the war.

By the time the Americans found them, finally abandoned, only 118 had survived. And such marches had happened throughout the Reich as local SS commanders sought to keep their charges from being discovered by the advancing Allies.

On May 7 a glamorous visitor pitched up at the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp, now commanded by the British. Marlene Dietrich, entertaining the Allied troops, had come to see her sister. But Elisabeth was not an inmate; her husband ran the local cinema and she was frightened about what would happen to them.

Elisabeth was just an ordinary German. And for them this week was a week above all of utter incomprehension. The returning writer Klaus Mann summed up the attitude he found almost everywhere. “They don’t see why they of all people should have to suffer so much. ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ they will ask you — all wild-eyed naiveté and bland innocence.”

Ullrich quotes a resistance member in Berlin saying of their fellow citizens, “everyone has a different excuse. Everyone suddenly has a Jew to whom he gave at least two kilos of bread or ten pounds of potatoes. Everyone helped the persecuted. ‘At great risk to my own life,’ the majority of these posthumous good Samaritans add with proud modesty.”

This culpability was given almost theatrical shape in the Allied decision that month to collect the old Nazi leaders in one place. It wasn’t until August, however, that the press learned that the grand Palace Hotel in the Luxembourg spa town of Mondorf-les-Bains had been temporarily repurposed as accommodation for 80-plus of the most terrible men in European history; men who had strutted, jackbooted and supremely arrogant, over most of the continent, from Crete to the Lofoten Islands.

Albert Speer, arriving a few weeks after the others at what the Allies called “Camp Ashcan”, later described first seeing Goring and company pacing in the hotel grounds. “The whole hierarchy was there,” he wrote, “ministers, field marshals, Reichsleiters, states secretaries and generals. It was a ghostly experience to find all those who at the end had scattered like chaff in the wind reassembled there.” The press insisted on there being a group photograph, which was dubbed “Class of 1945”.

“Everyone has a different excuse. Everyone suddenly has a Jew to whom he gave at least two kilos of bread or ten pounds of potatoes.”

But rightly harsh though Ullrich’s judgment of most of his Nazi-era compatriots is, it is tempered by what he knows is coming. That the Adenauers, Brandts and Schmidts are beginning their journeys into turning their destroyed, hated country into something that could one day be admired by others. That there were Germans who saw this time, in the words of one woman, as a moment after which she never again would “feel so intensely what it meant to be allowed to live on”.

So it was, writes Ullrich, that “joy at having survived the inferno released previously unknown energies” among millions of Germans. Allowing him to conclude with this: “It is crucial to remember the extent of the devastation, material and moral, to understand how unlikely this democratic revival must have seemed on May 8, 1945, and what an achievement it is that Germans today live in a nation defined by stability, freedom, and peace. Perhaps now is the right time to recall this revival, this achievement, as well.”

Indeed it is. The Germans will hold a general election in two weeks’ time. The Greens, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats lead the polls. The far right and far left are nowhere. Oh, how it started. Oh, how it’s going!

David Aaronovitch is the author of several books, including, most recently, Party Animals